La Section de la langue Jèrriaise

Le Maistre's Dictionary of the Jersey Language


Le Dictionnaire Jersiais-Français When the Société Jersiaise was formed in January 1873, one of its seven objects was "d'étudier, au point de vue historique et archéologique, le dialecte de l' ancienne langue insulaire". The two Vice-Presidents, Robert Pipon Marett (later, Sir) and Dr. Philippe Langlois, also Jurat Augustus Aspley Le Gros, one of the two secretaries, wrote extensively in the language and, together, had already embarked on the preparation of a glossary. One of the three Members of Honour elected during the first year of the Society's existence was Georges Métivier, of Guernsey, who was the first to study and to seek to conserve the dialects of the Channel Islands and was author of the Dictionnaire Franco-Normand and of other works. No doubt, most of the 70 members who joined the Société during its first year were fluent in the local language.

Subsequent to the death of A. A. Le Gros in 1877, and of Sir Robert Marett and Dr. Langlois in 1884, Thomas Gaudin continued with the task of compiling the glossary, but he left a still uncompleted draft when he died in 1895, The matter seems to have remained in abeyance until 1912 when a sub-committee was appointed to examine Gaudin's manuscript and to prepare it for publication. Revised and enlarged, the Glossaire du Patois Jersiais was eventually published by the Société in 1924, more than 50 years after the original work had begun. It comprises some 4,700 catchwords, gives French equivalents and also an illustrative phrase for many of the entries. Publication of the Glossaire - it was sent to members free - seems to have marked the end of any active interest by the Société in the matter of the Jersey language.

Though an admirable effort, the Glossaire fell far short of being a full record of the language and a whole generation was to pass before the appearance in 1960 of Dr. N. C. W. Spence's "A Glossary of Jersey-French" published by Basil Blackwood, Oxford, on behalf of The Philological Society. A scholarly work giving English equivalents and using the International Phonetic Script, this is an invaluable addition to our knowledge about the language, especially in respect of its historical background and its technical and other distinguishing features. But again, it is not, nor did the author claim to provide, a comprehensive record of the language.

That was the formidable self-imposed task that Frank Le Maistre undertook some 40 years ago with no rival in sight then and no prospect at all now of any successor. Only an author endowed with a blend of unusual natural ability and determination, of passion and zest for challenging work, could virtually single-handed have brought it to such a successful conclusion. It was an achievement in good timing that the Dictionnaire Jersiais-Français was published on the 14th October 1966 and proved to be the only permanent form of recognition in Jersey of the 900th anniversary of the events of 1066. And it may not be out of place to recall that the Norman tongue from which ours derives was spoken in England long before William conquered England and thus preceded the Anglo-Norman speech that was dominant in England among the ruling class until the middle of the 14th century.

Le Maistre is one of those very few people who has seen the realisation of an early and seemingly impossible dream: that of compiling a complete explanatory record of the rapidly disappearing Jersey language. The explanation is that he did not merely dream; he set about doing it. The dictionary embodies the fruits of a lifetime's work by him of collecting and recording, of persistent enquiry and wide-ranging study. Thanks to this untiring - and even fanatical - zeal, much of the intimate knowledge of the older generation has been conserved in this book. There are more than 17,000 catchwords with a text of about 750,000 words that include many thousands of phrases and sayings illustrative of the day-to-day associations of the terms treated. Rules for pronunciation are given and for the first time, the orthography of the language has been standardised and the conjugation of verbs established. Where possible Le Maistre has given the origin of words and sought their links with Norman, French, English, and over 30 other tongues. The terms employed in past and present occupations of the islanders are recorded as well as the local names of the island's flora and fauna. Indeed, nothing seems to have been left out and the book is as much an encyclopaedia as a dictionary. An indispensable second part of the book is the 60-page French-Jersiais Vocabulary compiled by Dr. A. L. Carré who, most fortunately was able to undertake this difficult task. Provided the reader is moderately familiar with the French language he can thus easily pursue in the first part of the book, any desired Jersiais word.

A deep attachment to the language by another Jerseyman, Arthur E. Balleine (1864- 1943), helped to sustain Le Maistre's efforts. He not only gave personal encouragement; he accumulated a large but, alas, unassorted collection of words and phrases which became available to Le Maistre. Balleine's devotion to the cause also found expression in his Will which provided that the income from the residue of his estate should be used for the preservation of the Jersey Language. It was thus possible to give practical encouragement to Le Maistre also to hope that when the text of his dictionary was ready, it would not remain within the confines of his study. With the passage of time and continually rising costs the Don Balleine Trust was, however, unable to bear the full cost of publication, but thanks to a grant by the States of Jersey it became possible for the Trust not only to produce a truly handsome volume but also to make it available to Jersey residents at an advantageous price. The technical production by Messrs, Spottiswoode Ballantyne & Co. Ltd., of Colchester, is excellent as indeed it should be for a book that will have no successor and will become scarce as the years pass. The publishers hope that copies will find their way to most universities and institutions where philology is studied.

In the foreword, Sir Robert Le Masurier, Bailiff of Jersey, expresses the hope that the dictionary will help to prolong the survival of the language for longer than one had dared to hope, M. Fernand Lechanteur, lecturer at Caen University on Norman dialects, in a eulogistic preface writes:- "Frank Le Maistre peut être certain que longtemps après lui, longtemps après que le dernier homme parlant jerriais aura rejoint ses ancêtres, les romanistes consulteront avec profit et attendrissement cette oeuvre monumentale que lui aura fait concevoir et mener à bonne fin son amour du pays, son indéfectible attachement à la langue de ses pères, de nos pères." There is a highly informative introduction by the author.

The identity of a people is rooted in its own language. Yet, alas, fewer and fewer young folk now speak Jersey's language and with the continued decline in its use for everyday communication, its eventual disappearance is indeed a sad prospect that is now relieved to some extent by the existence of the complete record that the dictionary provides. But Le Maistre does much more than merely record and explain words; he has made the book a repository of knowledge about every facet of island life and he has opened the doors to much social history and so retrieved from oblivion something of our vanishing local culture. He demonstrates that language is much more than mere speech: that it is a bridge to the past and that it reflects and, in turn, shapes the attitudes of a people. In the case of Jersey, the language has evolved through the intense family life in hamlet and parish and has been enriched by the variety of occupations, by the influx of refugees and new residents, by the returning islanders from the fishing banks and trading stations of the New World and by the crews of Jersey ships that traded all over the world. It is rich in metaphor and highly expressive - indeed it is often more expressive than English or French. A random choice shews that there are at least 15 words for calling a man a scamp, as many for calling him a chump, a score of dissimilar words for a slap in the face, and an endless variety for describing the behaviour of children.

For anyone conscious of Jersey's historic past, or susceptible to the allurement of words, or merely seeking knowledge, the fascination of the book is endless. We learn, for example, that the local word lief, a roof, is a direct relative of the Icelandic word hlifa, far removed from the English or from the French equivalent (toit); and the word persists in Guernsey too. Ridgi is not as one might imagine, an anglicisation of "to rig" but a descendant of an old Norwegian verb rigga. Another link with our Viking ancestry is hâugard (stackyard) deriving from haust meaning autumn or the harvest season, and gardr, an enclosure or yard. The frequently used greune or grunne, a submerged rock, is the pure Scandinavian grunne in spelling and meaning.

Strangely, there are very few traces of Celtic (or Breton) in the Jersey or Guernsey languages; among the few are pihangne for the so-called spider crab and pliaque, one of the Jersey terms for a girl but seldom used in polite society.

Our common word tchaie, to fall, was employed by Wace in the 12th century and remains peculiar to the island; it is strange that the French equivalent tomber finds no place here although we have tombe for a grave, and tombé for a gravestone. Baîni (limpet) is peculiarly Jersey: j'avons d'autres baînis à êcovi (to shell) is the equivalent of "we have other fish to fry" while ch'la ch'est d'aut' baînis means "that is another story." The origin of those strange but erstwhile commonly used expressions ouogue and bidé-ouaie to veer horses to the right and left respectively remains a mystery; they are unknown in France or Normandy and, it is believed, remain peculiar to Jersey. Among other colourful words peculiar to the Island are houiche-bat, for the now abandoned practice of hedge-beating at night for thrushes, starlings etc., and ouasser, to bark, that has resisted deformation by the English term or by the dissimilar French equivalent aboyer.

We may ponder on the manifold influences that have brought about the sharply different accents and pronunciations in various parts of such a small island; they persist to this day and are now faithfully recorded by Le Maistre. Or how to account for the different and even opposite meanings for identical words in the west and in the east. In the west, a clean farm pig is a quétot but an undesirable specimen of the animal or human kind is a couochon; but in the rest of the island the meanings are exactly the opposite. In the west a bird is ouaîthé but in the east it is ouaîsé. The word deux and other words with a similar ending have many different pronunciations even in the close-by parishes of St, Lawrence and Trinity. There are the curiosities of sometimes using "tch" instead of the initial " q" (tchînze, French quinze, fifteen) and the initial hard "c" (tchilyi from the French cueillir, to pick, and tchulyi borrowed from the French cuillère, a spoon), also the change of "r" to "th" as is seen in armouaithe from the French armoire, cupboard, and the strange conversion of the French oreille (ear) to ouothelle. Both these changes occur in the words tchuithe (French cuire, to cook), tchéthue (charrue, plough), tchoeuthu (courageux, in good heart) and many others, so producing words that have no parallel in sight or sound in English or French.

Colourful expressions abound. Tchéthue à tchians, literally, a plough drawn by dogs, but stands also for discord; the author cites this as an importation by Jerseymen returned from experiencing the Canadian winter and handling a team of dogs. Liéthe la gâzette (reading the newspaper) is applied to the vacant look of cows, and reflects, no doubt, the countryman's preference for useful activity. Rêver la rouoge trie (to dream about the red sow) is synonymous with having a nightmare. There is more than a hint of incredulousness in the expression les tchilieuvres mangent les crapauds (snakes eat toads) since though true, it is a very rare occurrence in Jersey. Il a autant d'sou comme un crapaud a d'puches (he has as much money as a toad has fleas) is a local way of saying that someone is as poor as a church mouse.

A newcomer to the language who delves into the Dictionary will find many very expressive words without any points of reference with his knowledge of other languages. Thus, pend'loque or pente-hueûille are terms of sympathy for one who is in trouble or down at heel or has a hang-dog look; baloque is less sympathetic and is, too, often a term of warning against someone. The context decides. Morgache is a grimace, êpeûthas, a scarecrow, and foustra, hâsîn, and viope are all peculiar local words for rubbish. Bliâse, fog, and aller quédaine, going at great speed, and githe, an old hag, are only a few further examples. As in all languages onomatopoesis gives rise to many distinctive words. One may mention achie, a shower of rain, and racachie for a disorderly lot, achouêmi, to smother or suppress forcefully, bliâtchi, to savour with relish noisily, particularly by children, cliamuse, for a smack in the face, cliaque, generally a flat sound similar to that caused when "cliaque" vraic is handled, clyînclias for the clatter of pots and pans, êcliatchi, to splash. Enhanner derived from the old exclamatory "han!", is to suffer in a lesser or greater degree, frédas is the fall or crashing of an object at some distance from the speaker, but pataflias is used for the noise from a massive crash or splash such as the fall of a tree. Ouappe is exactly the equivalent of the English "biff."

While common usage of the language is bound to decline, valiant efforts are being made to sustain and stimulate interest in it: contests in the local Eisteddfod, the activities of L'Assembliée d'Jèrriais (whose admirable quarterly Bulletin is edited by Frank Le Maistre), a weekly column in the daily "Evening Post", and evening Adult Education courses. All these efforts will have received a fresh impetus by the existence of this dictionary which can serve as a fount of knowledge and a quarry for endless probing and discovery. It provides everything for enjoying the study and understanding of the language; and it will be through this cultural interest that the language will survive the decline in day-to-day use. This is, indeed, the sense in which the dictionary has been welcomed elsewhere. In proposing the election of Frank Le Maistre as a Fellow of the Gustavus Adolphus Royal Academy, Uppsala, Professor Gunnar Tilander, Professor of Romance Languages at Stockholm University said that they wished to honour the learned farmer and scholar for his very rich, exceptionally useful, exact and reliable dictionary. It was of great value not only for those who studied the present French and allied languages, but also for scholars of the Scandinavian tongues on account of the numerous words of Scandinavian origin in the Norman language to which the Jersey one belonged.

We have been privileged to see numerous other tributes by distinguished scholars in other countries. The election of Le Maistre as a Member of Honour of the Société Jersiaise was the highest local recognition possible.

This is probably the last book in French that will be published in Jersey. But it is to be hoped that it will not mark the end of Mr. Le Maistre's authorship. He has a great deal more to impart to us from his vast and unique knowledge of things Jersey.



Annual Bulletin 1968


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La Section de la langue Jèrriaise
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